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Labour leader Keir Starmer was criticised on Sunday after insisting he would not scrap the government’s cap on welfare support payments for children if his party wins the next general election.

The Child Poverty Action Group, a charity, estimates 1.5mn children live in families affected by the government’s policy, which restricts tax credit and universal credit to the first two children in a family.

Starmer told the BBC he would not change the two child cap, as he also stated he would not reverse the government’s freeze on housing benefit.

His comments highlight his efforts to ensure Labour fights the next election on the centre ground of politics — partly by sounding fiscally responsible.

Jonathan Ashworth, shadow work and pensions secretary, last month raised expectations that Labour would scrap the government’s two child cap, calling the restriction “heinous” and saying it was “absolutely keeping children in poverty”.

But Starmer dashed those hopes, telling the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme “we are not changing that policy”.

Momentum, the campaign group that was influential when Jeremy Corbyn was Labour’s hard left leader, said Starmer had once again “sided with the Daily Mail”.

Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP, said it was “staggering” Labour would not lift the two child cap.

But polling organisation YouGov said the government’s policy was popular with 60 per cent of the public, adding Labour voters wanted to keep it by a margin of 47 per cent to 35 per cent.

Meanwhile, Starmer hinted that a Labour government would not be offering higher pay deals for striking doctors, saying it was the “government’s problem”.

He promised not to take Labour back into its “comfort zone” of promising “vast sums of money” for public services.

Starmer said a Labour government would invest in public services, but it needed to grow the economy to enable this.

“The left has to start caring a lot more about wealth, about creating wealth, attracting inward investment and kick-starting a spirit of enterprise,” he said in a column in the Observer newspaper.

Starmer and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves have indicated a Labour government would not increase borrowing to boost day-to-day spending.

They have announced a handful of limited tax rises for specific policies: for example, ending private schools’ tax perks to pay for more teachers in state education.

Labour is proposing to borrow an additional £28bn a year for green economy transition measures, saying that taking on extra debt can be fiscally responsible so long as it is for capital spending.

However, Reeves last month delayed the target for reaching that figure to halfway through the next parliament, in a move that angered some climate campaigners.

Starmer’s relative political caution has prompted a backlash from some trade unions.

Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite the Union — one of Labour’s largest financial backers — said she was “very very disappointed with the lack of ambition” displayed by the party leadership.

Mick Lynch, leader of the RMT union, said Starmer needed to show he was on the “side of the people”.

“He should be saying something about workers’ rights, he should say stuff about funding the NHS,” added Lynch. “He’s not saying any of that.”

Stephen Flynn, leader of the Scottish National party at Westminster, said Starmer would stunt the economy and harm public services by “copying these failed Tory policies”.

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